The Sewell Report: an example of institutional racism

The Sewell Report: an example of institutional racism

Shelter’s Anti-Racism Steering Group’s response to The Sewell Report

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, AKA The Sewell Report, undermines the extent of institutional and structural racism in the UK, downplays the impact of colonialism, and diminishes the lived experience of people who are impacted by racism. Many who gave evidence have said they felt their work was misrepresented.

Institutional racism exists: Remembering Grenfell and Stephen Lawrence

We know that a person’s identity impacts their access to safe, secure and affordable housing, and that the housing emergency impacts racially marginalised communities. Justice 4 Grenfell has urged the inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy to investigate institutional racism, saying that as long as discrimination exists, another disaster cannot be prevented.

Baroness Doreen Lawrence, who shared her thoughts as one of the members of our Social Housing Commission that followed the Grenfell fire, said that ‘race and class played an undeniable part’ in the tragedy.

Baroness Lawrence is the mother of Stephen Lawrence, who, aged 18 on 22 April 1993, was brutally murdered in a South East London street by a racist gang. Six years later, a report by Sir William Macpherson into Stephen’s murder and the subsequent police investigation, concluded that there was widespread ‘institutional racism’ within the Metropolitan police which resulted in a flawed police investigation. As a result, Stephen’s family were denied justice.

Importantly, the Macpherson Inquiry into Stephen’s murder acknowledged that ‘institutional racism’ existed in this country and defined it as ‘the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin’. Macpherson concluded his report with the important message: ‘There must be an unequivocal acceptance of the problem of institutionalised racism and its nature before it can be addressed’.  This was a watershed moment: it was the first time in the UK that institutional racism was acknowledged and defined.

So, what did the report miss?

The Sewell Report accepts the definition of institutional racism as outlined in the Macpherson report, but claims that the term ‘institutional racism’ is alienating to moderate people in the UK. We, and many others, disagree.

The report has rightly led to criticism from organisations such as Black Lives Matter UK, The Runnymede Trust, Race on The Agenda, Mental Health First Aid England, and more.

The report represents a missed opportunity to seriously analyse institutional racism in the UK, and while it recognises the reality ‘that ethnic minority Britons are more likely to live in persistent poverty and overcrowded housing’, it undermines the solutions we need to fix that situation and does not challenge the policies in place that perpetuate it. The report does, however, outline key policies that may be feeding into these disproportionate rates of overcrowding.

Look at the UK housing system

Inequalities have been baked into the UK’s housing system by a long history of discriminatory policy and practice.

People of colour are disproportionately affected by the housing emergency. In England, every eight minutes a person who is Black, Asian or from another minority ­­ethnic background becomes homeless or is threatened with homelessness. Across the UK, Bangladeshi-headed households are twice as likely, and Black-headed households 1.7 times as likely to claim housing benefit than white-headed households and all households on average. The latest figures show that 24% of people who are homeless or at immediate risk of homelessness in England and Wales are Black (11%), Asian (6%), from a Mixed ethnic background (3%) or from an Other ethnic group (4%) – even though, collectively, they make up just 14% of the population.

Immigration policy is a key area in which institutionally racist practices persist, and will be contributing to racial exclusions and inequalities within our housing system. Immigration controls principally target a ‘global poor’ in a way that closely corresponds with people who come from ‘former colonies’ and therefore people of colour. [i] 

The No Recourse to Public Funds policy prevents nearly 1.4m households from accessing the welfare safety net and statutory homelessness assistance if they need it, with this policy disproportionately affecting people of colour. And as successive UK governments have created a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants it has introduced racist immigration checks within private renting, such as the Right to Rent policy in England. [ii]

Policies such as the ‘dispersal’ of asylum seekers to low-demand areas, and historically, investigations, have highlighted how institutional and interpersonal discrimination by letting agents and housing officers has seen people of colour more likely to be offered poorer quality homes, and ‘steered’ towards neighbourhoods that are run down, and lack the investment needed to thrive. In turn, people of colour have been blamed or ‘othered’  for ‘creating’ these environments, further spreading racial prejudice.

Nevertheless, we persevere

The Sewell Report has failed to acknowledge the extent that institutional and structural racism exists in the UK. This comes at a time when organisations across the UK have openly acknowledged racist practices and policies, and begun taking strong steps toward long-lasting change. From welfare to being able to rent, our housing system perpetuates our racist society and it needs to change.

The report itself is an example of institutional racism, and shows why we must not give up the fight for anti-racism. We react to it and move on, continuing to not only agree that racism is wrong, but choosing to actively opt-in to dismantling it.

What you can do right now

We are calling on the UK government to end racist policies and practices in housing.

As a first step, we’re joining with organisations such as Project17JCWI, and NACCOM to demand that the UK government ends the NRPF condition across the UK, and Right to Rent checks in England. [ii]

Right now, you can sign the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ petition calling for an end to No Recourse To Public Funds. Their research shows the NRPF policy is a public health risk, and increases the risk of destitution amongst migrant families.

There are lots of organisations fighting for racial justice and equality in the UK. One excellent organisation you should follow is The Runnymede Trust. They were quick to respond to The Sewell Report last week with this snap event on YouTube. Watch, share and discuss with your networks.

Finally, you can sign The Runnymede Trust’s joint letter to the Prime Minister to #RejectTheReport and implement the recommendations of the long-standing Macpherson, Lammy, Marmot and Williams reviews. The deadline is 23:59, Thursday 8 April 2021.

What is Shelter’s Anti-Racism Steering Group?

Shelter’s Anti-Racism Steering Group, made up of colleagues from across the charity in England and Scotland, exists to develop Shelter’s anti-racism plan, to listen to people who have been impacted by racism, and to learn from those who have been working to dismantle it. We are also here to hold ourselves and our leaders accountable, by working to ensure that Shelter rejects racism within its organisation and our housing system.

[i] For further discussion of the relationship between borders, race and racism see L. De Noronha. 2020. Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of deportation to Jamaica.

[ii] The Right to Rent check is not required in Scotland.